The Mapuche are the oldest and most important ethnic minority, representing less than 5 percent of the population. During the 12th century they migrated as nomads and fishermen from Patagonia to the Chilean west coast and settled in the fertile valleys. The Mapuche are legendary because of their fierce resistance, first against Inca, and later against Spanish efforts to take their land. At the end of the 19th century they were forced to hand over their territories to the central government.
Since the loss of their traditional lands many Mapuche have been living in poverty. The majority of them have now migrated to the cities in search of better economic opportunities. Some 3,000 communities remain in the south of Chile, living from agriculture, maintaining their traditions, their own Mapudungu language – and still fighting for their rights. Homelands are increasingly threatened by logging companies and the forestry industry. Land disputes and violent confrontations continue, particularly in the northern sections of the Aracuania region between and around Traiguén and Lumaco.
Chile has historically denied its ethnic and cultural diversity. Efforts by the Chilean government to redress some of the inequities of the past had little success. The Mapuche are still far from having the same opportunities as the mestizo population. In the past years increasingly violent Mapuche activism is being prosecuted under counter-terrorism legislation originally introduced by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. In 2010 this led to hunger strikes by Mapuche activists in an effort to change anti-terrorism laws.
This story is part of Via Panam, Kadir van Lohuizen’s project about migration in the Americas.